‘No one is so powerful that he can stop the march of time’ – this is what the phrase ‘time and tide wait for none’ means. Although the origin of this phrase is not sure, yet it is obvious that it has ancient origins and predates modern English. The mere mention of the ‘tide’ being beyond man’s control brings to mind images of King Canute’s story. He showed the limitations of a King’s powers by failing to make the sea obey his orders. The word ‘tide’ in this phrase originally didn’t imply what the present meaning is – ‘the rising and falling of the sea’. It denoted ‘a period of time’. At the time when this phrase was coined the word ‘tide’ meant a season or a time or a while.
This phrase is also sometimes mentioned as ‘time and tide wait for no man’. Nevertheless, it signifies the importance of time. In literature time has often been referred to as “Once upon a time…” and then as the story progresses we discover how time passes, how it comes to a standstill, how it flies sometimes and how the character develops as time goes by. Time was a great teacher for King Lear in Shakespeare’s play ‘King Lear’. His character undergoes a sea-change with passage to time. His tow elder daughters failed the test of time. It was the youngest one, the reticent Cordelia, who faced the stormy times and came out a winner in being united with her father. But then time was a cruel teacher. Both Lear and Cordelia had to pay the price of their lives. Time had not waited for them. How time flies!’ they say. Rightly has Ben Hecht said, “Time is a circus always packing up and moving away.”
Time is to be treated as a precious commodity. It’s as important as life itself. What is life? Is it a mere breathing exercise? How do we define time? We often refer to the term ‘lifetime’. What makes a life is not the whole life at one go. Rather it consists of moments stitched together. We should live life in parts, so to say. Live a whole lifetime in a whole day. Live as if there’s no tomorrow. This doesn’t mean being rash. But start enjoying your life, you never will be able to when times change. You never can judge what time has in store for you. Being alive and living is a totally different thing. If you go to accumulating wealth hoping that you’ll indulge yourself, do something for your family and enjoy life one day, you are grossly mistaken. When a man dies he will never wish he would have spent some more time in the office. As we say, ‘opportunity is here’, similarly, ‘time is here and now’. Time should never be wasted. “I wasted time and now doth time waste me”, says Shakespeare in ‘Richard II’ (Act V, scene v).
German Nobel Prize Winner, Thomas Mann in his novel ‘The Magic Mountain’ writes: “What is time? It is a secret – lacking in substance and yet almighty.” The concept of time has been treated differently in different periods of time. In ancient Greece time was treated as a circle. Hesoid, the Greek historian of 8th century B.C. divided time into five ages of mankind, beginning with the golden age of the distant past when men lived in peace and continuing upto the contemporary Iron Age where fights and warfare prevail. But in medieval and modern times time has been treated as a linear process. Saint Augustine in his ‘City of God’ favoured the linear concept of time and labelled the Greek cyclic time as a mere superstition.
Time has been mentioned in literature in different ways. Even the mythical and cyclic depiction of time had influenced many writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’), Octavio Paz (his poem ‘Piedra de sol’). Even T.S. Eliot in his poem ‘Geronation’ gave to us the negative document on human life just as Paz. According to the linear concept time is an irreversible process; in Christianity from Creation to Judgment Day. An illustration of this in literature can be seen in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. William Faulkner, the winner of Nobel Prize Winner in literature in 1949, in his celebrated novel ‘The Sound and the Fury’ – gives in detail the downfall of a wealthy and prosperous family in the southern United States.
We have examples of famous personalities who dreamt big but had to accept defeat in front of time. The most brilliant example is that of Alexander the Great. At his death he wished to show to the people that he was going empty-handed. This was the realization of a lifetime but it dawned upon him when he was on his death-bed. Time didn’t wait for him either. Hitler had dreamed of ruling over the whole world, but his progress was checked very soon and had to commit suicide in the end. These are all examples of human failure in front of the divine power of time. We have to move ahead with the time to conquer it. Generally what we do is that we move where life takes us. Thus, we allow to be driven by time, and to dominate us. If we stand still we will reach nowhere and time won’t stop for us, to take us along. Austin Dobson writes:
Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go.
Indeed, ‘men may come and men may go’ but time stays on just like ‘the brook’. But, again just as water is never the same in a flowing river, time too never repeats itself. Time once past cannot be recalled. How beautifully Omar Khayam puts it:
The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
No matter how many pains you take, you cannot use the ‘undo’ command in life and edit again.
Another quality of time is its uniformity and impartial nature. It works at the same pace for the wealthiest and for the poorest one. An hour means sixty minutes both for a king and a pauper. All are slaves of time. What we can do is make the most of the time at hand, as the old proverb goes ‘make hay while the sun shines’.
We can broadly divide time into three categories – past, present and future. But actually it is indivisible. It’s a wonder how soon a past is created. You wink and eye and the moment is past. You will never find back the time wasted by you, there will only be tales of past. Future too is not revealed to us. We never know what is going to happen. ‘There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip’. So we should live in the present. It is only in the present that the essence of life is contained. We cannot depend on either the past or future which is not in front of us. Live life as it unfolds itself before us, that is, in the form of present.
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, -- act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
(H.W. Longfellow in ‘A Psalm of Life’)
Time doesn’t give you chances. There are no retakes in real life. Time teaches you with experience but it has been called the cruelest teacher. Why? Because it never waits and you can’t change your actions later. So much destruction has been caused in the world. The two World Wars have been there. Atom bombs have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seemed as if the country of Japan would be destroyed, its economy would never be able to recover. But time didn’t come to a standstill. Japan is one of the leading nations of the world. This is because the Japanese didn’t wait for the time, rather they acted. People lose their loved ones. Their lives are shattered by the death. Life doesn’t seem to be moving ahead. But things change because time doesn’t wait for the mourner to get back to life again. Time is a great healer too. It goes on and on, just like a stream. Indeed, time is the stream of life. Just like the bubbles some people fade away, some new ones take their place and the process goes on. Life goes on.
‘There is a time and place for everything’ according to an old proverb. So when opportunity knocks at your door don’t turn around. Grab the offer with both hands. Act spontaneously. The moment you act will be the right time. You never know when the time runs out or the tide turns unfavourable. Time is like the sand fast pouring out of your hands. It is just like the onion being layer after layer and in the end you find there’s nothing remaining in it. It’s now or never. So like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow says:
Let us, then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.